Widowed Three Times
“I been widowed three times,” Charlie Pierce said to the nurse handing him the little paper cup containing his pills.
“Take your pills, Charlie,” the nurse said with, it seemed to Charlie, a note of impatience.
If they thought he just stood there babbling without gauging the effect that his words had on his listeners, well, they thought wrong. Every single thing he said was both a declaration of who he was and a carefully calculated strategy to elicit a reaction by which he could determine how others took him. This time, impatience.
“I been—“ he began again but then stopped. It dawned on him why she might be impatient. “—or maybe I already told you that,” he said.
The nurse, who had moved on to the two gents on the bench next to him, turned back to Charlie and winked.
“Could be,” she said.
This complicated things. There were residents—plenty of them—at Paul and Ruby’s Living Center who spent their waking hours endlessly repeating a single name or phrase or sentence. Charlie for sure didn’t want to be known as one of them. On the other hand, the nurse had winked sort of conspiratorially. That was good. It meant that she and Charlie shared a certain level of awareness. They were on the same side of the fence, you might say. Which was very very good.
Now that he had that analyzed to his advantage, Charlie would be a good boy and take his pills. He raised the paper cup to his lips.
Uh oh. What’s this? Not pills, water. Two cups in fact, one in each hand. One with pills, another with water. Of course! Pills first, then the water. Done.
Charlie crushed the paper cups together into a ball, then walked across the hall, reared back, and slammed the ball into the trash receptacle next to the nurses’ station.
Then he walked—swaggered, he’d like to think he “swaggered”—back to his place beside the bench. He leaned back against the wall.
On his right stood another man, half a head taller than Charlie. He had the longest neck Charlie had ever seen. A neck like that’s made for the guillotine, Charlie thought. Charlie started to say something to him but then remembered that the man didn’t talk. Just stood there with that little bullet head atop his great long neck, starring around bug-eyed like everything he saw scared the hell out of him.
Charlie turned to the little bald-headed man sitting on the bench to his left.
“I been widowed three times,” he said.
The bald-headed man looked up with a jerk like Charlie had dropped an ice-sickle down his back. Charlie remembered him now. He always stared bug-eyed like the man on the other side of Charlie, except in addition to looking scared the little guy looked enraged and so excited he couldn’t sit still on the bench. Maybe Charlie was on the bug-eyed row. He resisted an urge to go back to his room and check his eyes out in the mirror screwed into his closet door.
“I been widowed three times,” he repeated before the man, who was so excited he could hardly form words, finally managed to croak, “No you haven’t!”
“The hell I haven’t! Been widowed three times!” Charlie declared, doubling up his fist and eyeing the up-turned end of the man’s piggy nose. But then Charlie remembered the male nurse behind the counter at the nurses’ station. Charlie wasn’t afraid of him, not a bit of it, but the guy could be rough, especially when he came in your room at night.
“No, you haven’t! You’re a man!”
“Well, I guess I know that without being told.”
“A man can’t be a widow! That’s a woman! A man’s a widower! So you have been widowerered, you’ve been widowerwerwererered, you’ve been wi-wer-wa-wa-wa-WA-WA-WA! WA! WA!—“
Oh Jesus, Charlie remembered this old buzzard now. He’d get stuck on a word and stay like that until he passed out or they had to give him a shot. You could divide the residents of Paul and Ruby’s Living Center into three groups: those who could talk just fine (the minority, Charlie included, of course), those who didn’t talk at all, and the majority, those who could talk but in some god-awful messed up way that made you want to high-tail-it out of there. Charlie left the old fool wa-wa-waing and walked off down the hall.
Charlie lived on the ward A of Paul and Ruby’s. Ward A was in the shape of a capital T. At the base of the long hall was the main entrance, lobby, and administrative offices, with the other end bisecting the cross-hallway at the nurses’ station. On either end of the cross-hallway was a door to the outside, which you couldn’t open without setting off an alarm. Charlie walked to the door that looked out on the blacktop road that ran by the living center.
He looked out the window. He seemed to recall that across the blacktop had once been green fields, and in the distance a barn. Now, though, there was a little housing development, a single street of split-level, brick and vinyl-siding homes. At the house on the corner a man was doing something in his front yard. A car drove past.
Charlie turned away from the door. He looked in the first room on his right.
“I’m glad I don’t have to go out there anymore,” he said to a woman sitting in a wheelchair by the window. She had been staring at her hands folded across her stomach, but when he spoke she looked up and smiled at him and said, “I know, I know.” Charlie looked at her a minute.
“I been widowed three times,” he said.
The woman didn’t say anything.
“Yep, three times.”
She didn’t say anything. Just looked at him. Probably nothing he said was getting through to her. But you couldn’t always be sure. She might sit there like a bump on a log and then all of a sudden start yammering. She might start asking questions.
Charlie turned so fast to get away from the woman that he almost lost his balance and went down. What had frightened him was the possibility of the woman asking him about his three wives. Charlie was not currently able to remember number three. He’d been trying for awhile now, but no luck. And he had a hunch that number three had probably been the best of the bunch.
Charlie walked back down the hall toward the nurses’ station, then on past toward the other door at the far end of the hall. He was proud of the way he could walk. There were plenty at Paul and Ruby’s who couldn’t move a muscle except to cry and crap their pants and yammer. But Charlie could walk half the day—and did. What else was there to do?
He peered into each room as he walked down the hall, looking for the cat. Couldn’t remember the cat’s name but did remember what she looked like: luxurious orange and white hair and fat and sassy. She had a molded plastic cathouse about the size of a bushel basket down by the door, but she never slept there. She was everybody’s pet, spoiled rotten, slept on the foot of a different bed every day. Always on this ward, though. Those poor saps on ward B never got to see her. They were in a real bad way over there. Charlie was proud to be on ward A, proud to be able to walk and talk, proud to be a man who’d survived the death of three wives and could still look the world right in the eye with his chin up.
“I been widowed three times!” he called into an empty room.
Charlie moved on down the hall, and in the next room spotted the cat on the end of the bed eyeing him dourly like it’d been expecting him to show up but wasn’t happy about it.
He started to say something to the cat when he noticed the man standing in the space between the window and closet. Just standing there. He was tall but stoop-shouldered, with long narrow side-burns and hair so black it looked like it’d been dyed with shoe polish. On first glance the unnaturally black hair made him look younger than the other residents, but he wasn’t young at all.
“George!” Charlie called out. “George Cooper!”
Charlie was so pleased with himself for remembering George’s name that he almost danced.
“George, I been widowed three times!”
George stared at him.
Sometimes George talked, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he remembered things, sometimes not. Charlie considered him almost a friend—a “comrade” was the way he thought about it because both of them had been in the war. George had been wounded, but Charlie didn’t know where. That is, Charlie knew he’d been wounded in Italy, but he hadn’t known what part of his body he’d been wounded on. You could tell where Charlie had been wounded just by looking.
Charlie looked down at his hand.
He’d been in the navy in the South Pacific. He’d always been lucky, and the ocean had been so big, the sky so big, so many ships, the farthest away like splinters on the sea, he’d thought the chances of a kamikaze hitting his ship were too small to worry about. But then one had hit and gone through three decks like it was searching for Charlie alone. He spent way too long in a burn unit in Hawaii, and then over a year at the VA hospital in Springfield, Missouri. There were a lot of skin grafts. He spent months with his left hand grafted to his stomach. He couldn’t remember if that’d been for his stomach or hand. The hand was never much use again, didn’t hurt but constantly felt numb, tingly. It felt best when he rested it on his stomach.
He’d met Wilma at the VA hospital, where she was a nurse.
She was petite with short brown hair and black eyes that flashed like firecrackers going off. She had a way of smiling with the right corner of her mouth going up that looked almost like a sneer, but it wasn’t that. It was just that Wilma was full of piss and vinegar. You couldn’t put anything over on her, and she didn’t take anything off anybody. All the nurses at the VA hospital were tough as boot leather—they had to be to survive a week on the job there. But little Wilma—she looked about fifteen—put them all to shame. She could take a joke and wisecrack right back or change a wound dressing and not bat an eye as the man screamed until he fainted. Flirt, everybody flirted with her, but if somebody got serious with it she’d cut him dead with a look that made him wish he was back among the hedgerows.
That made it all the more miraculous that she took up with Charlie. He couldn’t remember how it got started, but on her breaks she began sitting with him out on the white benches scattered about the broad greensward east of the hospital as other vets kept their distance but looked on with, not envy like you might expect, but solemn awe. He remembered that and the perpetually dark cool lobby of the hospital, where in bad weather they sat like shy teenagers, hardly speaking, Wilma’s feet not even touching the floor as she swung her legs in one of the big leather wing chairs. The white benches, and the dim cool lobby, and the little ice cream stand underneath a maple tree a block from the hospital, barely big enough inside for one worker and a freezer with three tubs of ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. There was a bench just wide enough for the two of them beside the stand, which was painted green and looked old but must have been made of fresh cedar because Charlie could remember like it was yesterday sitting beside Wilma trading licks on a strawberry ice cream cone, winged maple seeds spinning around them through air so rich with the scent of cedar that he wanted to share a scoop of that, too, lick for lick with Wilma.
He was discharged from the hospital in 1946. He went home to Little Rock, telling Wilma he’d return for her when he had a decent job and a place for them to live. In Little Rock, he thought back on his months in Springfield with Wilma as a dream and her rare letters like something out of The Saturday Evening Post, pleasant fictions about someone else’s life. He returned for her the beginning of the next year, but really he thought of it as a sentimental journey to view once more the old places. Wilma wouldn’t be there, he knew that. He wasn’t gullible enough to expect a miracle like that again.
But Wilma was there. She married him. They lived in Little Rock until she died in childbirth, August 1, 1948, at 11:35 at night as Charlie drove around town trying to find the pint of strawberry ice cream he’d promised to bring her. Their son, John, though, was just fine.
“Wilma!” Charlie croaked.
“You call this a living center?”
Startled out of his reverie, Charlie looked around for the source of the voice. Had someone spoken in response to his “Wilma”? Damn it all, why did he have to blurt that out? Folks would be thinking he belonged with the other loonies around here. Then Charlie remembered him, tall but hunched over in the shadow place between the window and closet. George, old George!
“You call this a living center?” George repeated. “This is a dying center, I tell you, this is a dying center.”
Then Charlie remembered why he’d been avoiding George. Charlie didn’t have anything against the guy except that he wasn’t what you’d call pleasant to be around, always yammering about Paul and Ruby’s being a dying center. The final straw had come a while ago—days, months. Charlie had been walking down the hall—by God he could still walk!—when he passed the nurses’ station. There was George talking on the phone.
“But this is Saturday!” he squawked, his voice breaking on Saturday, face twisted in horror and rage and despair. “It’s Saturday! . . .What? Well . . . But it’s Saturday! This is Saturday!”
Charlie had moved off fast as he could but even all the way down to the door that looked out onto the blacktop road, he could hear George, crying now, whining, “But this is Saturday! It’s Saturday!”
Charlie had been shocked and distressed. He’d thought George was a comrade, like him, like Charlie, not like all the other pitiful broken ones who pissed and shat their pants and moaned and whined and cursed and pleaded for death. You could still be a man, couldn’t you? Even here you could still be a man.
“I been widowed three times!” Charlie called in to George, pumping his fist as if leading a cheer.
“You call this a living center?” George said.
The first year after Wilma’s death had been a fog of shock and grief through which Charlie stumbled as if drugged. Later, he came to love the baby, little John, like nothing else in life. But that first year John was like a huge tumor on Charlie’s back, and Charlie didn’t have the strength to carry him. He had help, though, from his mother and old maid aunt, and somehow that first year passed.
On August 1, 1949, he sat on Wilma’s side of the bed until the hands of the clock swept round to 11:35, and then he said, “Well, I’m still alive.”
Friends and family told him he was still a young man, and little John needed a mother, so Charlie should remarry. He did. Her name was Liz, and she worked as cashier in the cafeteria Charlie managed. Liz was a couple of years older than Charlie, tall, blond, big-boned, and slow moving—in many ways the mirror-opposite of Wilma. She never said much, and a lot of people thought maybe she was a little simple. In fact, it took Charlie years to figure out that, if Liz wasn’t as mercurial as Wilma, the two were alike in many ways. Like Wilma, Liz was no dummy, and she was no pushover, either. Sure, Liz had that sweet little smile, but she had a way of looking you right in the eye as she held that smile just a couple of seconds longer than was comfortable. It made you feel she was looking deeper into you than you wanted a person to look. In the thirty-one years they were married, Charlie never once put anything over on Liz. At a certain point he understood that he didn’t want to. He hadn’t loved her when he married her—and no doubt she understood that—but he came to love her. No doubt she understood that, too. At a certain point he realized with a shock that, of the two of them, Liz and Wilma, the great love of his life had been Liz. They were going to walk hand in hand into old age together. Together, they’d face death. In fact, they did.
Liz died after a thirteen-month bout with lung cancer. “Bout.” Well. Lung cancer chased her into a corner and beat her until she wasn’t strong any more, beat her until she screamed and Charlie screamed with her. His happiest day in that thirteen months was the day she died. He felt relief, release. He wouldn’t have to go to the hospital every day now. The children were all grown and on their own, so Charlie could look to himself now. Now he could die.
But he didn’t. He was only fifty-nine, in good health. He had decades of advancing age to look forward to. Old age alone. He’d live out his life on his own terms, facing what came, looking it in the eye, spitting it in the goddamn eye, living life courageously, on his own terms, alone. Oh, but he didn’t want to be alone! No no no!
And then, when he thought all was lost, that a miracle could not strike three times in his life, she appeared, the last of them, surely the best of them all, the—
He couldn’t remember her name. He couldn’t remember his third wife.
“Jesus!” he screamed to the window: outside, a parking lot, then a flat grassy area, then a wooded hill.
What was this? He hadn’t been standing in front of a window. He’d been in George Cooper’s room, talking to George. How had Charlie gotten here?
But that’s the way he was now. He forgot things. He had these “gaps.” That’s why he was at Paul and Ruby’s. His third wife had died, and he’d gotten old, alone, and started to forget things, so they’d brought him here.
He was better off than most of the loonies, though. There were just the occasional gaps. He still remembered most things. And he could by God walk!
He looked out the window. He realized it was a window in a door. Of course. He was at the back door, the one at the east end of ward A’s cross hallway. Above the bar-lever which opened the door was a sign in red letters:
LEAVE DOOR CLOSED
Charlie looked out at the green grass and the wooded hill. And beyond the hill was . . .
He pushed on the lever, and the door opened, the alarm sounded, and he was out like a shot.
They caught him before he got to the end of the short sidewalk that led to the parking lot. It was the male nurse who caught him. The woman nurse who’d given him his pills stood holding the door open for them.
“Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” the male nurse said, grinning, “I knew you were going to make a dash for it again today.”
“I’ve done this before.” Charlie said it like it was an assertion, but really it was a question.
“Could be,” the nurse holding the door for them said.
Inside the door Charlie stopped and turned to the male nurse.
“Just tell me one thing. What’s on the other side of the hill?”
“You know the answer to that, Charlie,” he said. “Another hill!” Then he grinned again like everything Charlie did today just amused the hell out of him.
“I’m tired. I want to go back to my room.”
“Good idea,” the male nurse said.
“It’s this way,” the woman nurse said and led him on down the hall.
He followed her to the nurses’ station, then on past toward the door at the other end of the hall, the one looking out on the blacktop road. At the last room on the left the nurse stopped and gestured into the open doorway.
“Here we are, Charlie.”
Charlie took a step into the room, then stopped. There were two beds, and beside the bed next to the window was a woman in a wheelchair. Uh oh, wrong room. “No,” he said and began to back out.
“Yes, Charlie, this is your room,” the nurse said.
Charlie started to protest, but then he looked at the woman in the wheelchair again. He looked at her. He walked toward her, staring.
Then: “Mary! Mary! Mary! I thought you were dead!”
“I know, I know,” she said.
“I thought you were dead!” he repeated. Then, sorrowfully, he corrected himself: “I forgot you.”
“I know, I know,” she said.
He took her hand and kissed it and pressed it to his stomach, as if that’s where his heart was. He was so happy he began to cry.
When he began to cry, the nurse laid her hand on his shoulder.
“Come on, Charlie, we’re getting ourselves all upset again. Let’s lie down and rest awhile.”
The nurse drew him over toward the bed nearest the door. When Charlie felt Mary’s hand start to pull out of his, he began to struggle against the nurse.
“No no,” he croaked. But it did no good. The nurse pulled him over to the side of the bed and then pushed him down. He lay there a moment, paralyzed by anger and humiliation, then, as the nurse turned to leave the room, he lurched up and bellowed, “I been widowed three times!”
The nurse walked on out the door.
Charlie stared after her for a moment, then looked around wildly. There was an old woman sitting in a wheelchair over by the window.
“I been widowed three times!” he declared.
“I know, I know,” the woman said.
The nurse walked on down the hall. When she got to the nurses’ station, the male nurse grinned at her and said, “You call this a living center?”
She winked and said, “Could be.”
On the bench across the hall the little bald-headed man straightened up, threw back his shoulders, and opened his mouth as if he had the answer and was ready to shout it to the world. But for all his straining, no words came.